Posted by: Caity | October 19, 2010

Zahma

“The greatest danger for Americans in Cairo, “ the head of US Embassy security told us at Luke’s Fulbright orientation, “is crossing the street.”

Indeed, I was well aware of the dangers, having spent the first number of attempts clutching onto Luke’s arm and letting loose a nervous high-pitched squeal until reaching the other side. Crossing signals or guards are few and only at the largest intersections. More often than not, crossing the street means stepping right out into multiple lanes of moving traffic.

“My advice to you,” he continued, “is to look for a confident Egyptian, stick to them like their shadow, and you should be alright.”

At first it seemed like suicide. “It’s just because you’re new here,” our Arabic teacher insisted, smiling. “You’ll get used to it.” It is no wonder that one of the first words that we learned in our Egyptian dialect class was zahma – traffic, or crowding.

But it is not quite like crossing the whizzing four lanes of Sixth Avenue in New York City, where taxis are perched at stop lights ready to jump on green regardless of whether or not you’ve made it safely across with your grocery bags. While sometimes there are lines on the wider roads here to mark out lanes, they are rarely followed. Thus, the 4,500,000 cars on the streets of Cairo are crammed into tiny spaces, weaving in and out of the semblances of lanes, and – especially at rush hour – putting along at a steady 20 km/hour, if moving at all.

While sitting still in lunchtime traffic in the back of a taxi one day, we struck up conversation with the driver. “In Cairo, drivers seem to fit 3 or 4 lanes in a two lane road like this!” He smiled and looked up at us in the rear view mirror, “Or 5, or 6!” he laughed. “Do taxi drivers have doctorates in driving?” we teased. ”You all know the exact width of your cars!” He squeezed with an inch to spare past a double-parked car and another inching taxi, amidst a flurry of honking and mouthed obscenities and gesticulations behind closed windows.

Traffic, road rage, and the developed system of signals and honks for all occasions (passing on the right or left, coming upon an intersection, passing dangerously fast, and apparently even for hitting on a pretty pedestrian) mean that life near the streets is quite noisy. There seems to always be a wedding somewhere (imagine “dah, dah, dah dah dah” on repeat). A report that came out two years ago found that the average noise in Cairo from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. is 85 decibels, a bit louder than a freight train 15 feet away. It is indeed about 7 a.m. that I am woken up every day by honking from the intersection six stories beneath us.

And the cars are not exactly new. Sixty percent of cars here are over ten years old, which no doubt does wonders for the cloud of smog looming over the city. Having spent a month with 15-year-olds coordinating a youth service project in New York over the summer, I was abruptly informed that the seemingly timeless “punch-buggy” game has been retired in preference for yellow cars, as VW Bugs just aren’t on the roads anymore. But here, punch-buggy is all the rage—at least between us—as Luke and I whisper the colors to each other in Arabic (the punching got old rather quickly).

Clearly the root cause of the zahma is not the cars themselves, but the incredible rate at which the city has expanded and grown. As the Aswan Dam controlled the annual flooding of the Nile and Cairo could expand to the land right up against the river (the older Islamic Cairo is located quite a distance east of the river), new buildings and neighborhoods were raised on land that had only sacredly been reserved for farmland. In the past century, the population of the city increased from 600,000 to now over 17 million.

Thus it is not just the streets that are crowded. Forty-five percent of Cairenes live in slum conditions; mosque congregations spill out onto temporarily closed and carpeted streets during prayer times; and the city’s two metro lines tightly pack in over a million passengers daily. Soon after we learned to say zahma in class, we learned how to say the equivalent of “can of sardines,” ‘ilbat salamon.

But there are coping mechanisms for such crowding, and being intimately shoved up against multiple passengers in a hot car (without air conditioning) can bring out the kindness and warmth in people just as it can bring out frustration. One morning on the way to class I was riding in one of the two cars reserved just for women, as I normally do during rush hour to avoid any uncomfortable closeness with strange men. I entered on one side, and had not planned ahead that my exit was on the other side of the train. As we eased into the stop, no amount of pushing could get me to the door in time, and Luke and I waved sadly at each other from opposite sides of the plexi-glass as the train began to move. Seeing my condition, all of the women near me then kindly conspired and cooperated to push me back over to the other side to exit at the next stop and head back. When you are so close, sometimes there is nothing you can do but help each other.

We’ve gotten used to the close quarters now and the crowded streets. Each time we cross now, I imagine if threads were attached to us all we would be weaving one enormous and intricate tapestry as we wind through the various lanes of traffic on the loom of Qasr al-‘Ayni street. We knew we had passed a significant milestone when, after keeping our eyes glued to the left to monitor moving traffic as we crossed, we finally looked right to find a line of Egyptians crossing in our shadow.

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